Developing my own philosophy of Creativindie and working on a manifesto for this site, I’ve been reading all the books on creativity that I can find. Some offer valuable tips. Others are inspirational but mostly useless in terms of making your own success through creative talents. These books range between academic researchers with real evidence, and seat-of-the-pants artists who got successful by luck and don’t really know what happened or where their creativity came from.
Keep in mind that I’m picky and already biased: I believe creativity can and should be used to make money, so that artists and authors can quit their jobs and spend their lives doing what they love, while generating an abundance of wealth so that they can do positive things. So I’m looking for specific, practical ideas on how to develop a successful creative career.
The current ideology of creativity is a mysterious, inexplicable process of expressionism and mystical inspiration. Those who espouse it steer clear of practical advice, guidelines, exercises, because they have no idea where it comes from and are constantly fighting off fear and self-doubt. There are certainly artists who create with no structure, no plan, no idea where they are going or what the final product will be. As an exercise in removing inhibitions and self expression, or as a kind of emotional therapy, you’re welcome to follow their (often rambling and imprecise) directions on how to create.
If you’re a housewife, or retired, or rich, or a tenured professor reflecting back on a long career in the arts, maybe that’s all you need.
But I refuse to accept that only the emotional, create-with-no-plan artists and authors can be called “creative”: in fact though it has worked in the past, mostly for expressionists, impressionists and abstract artists, trying to write a novel or create art that gets sold or put in galleries without a very clear, deliberate, conscious plan for producing and finishing the work (that doesn’t depend on inspiration from a magical being that whispers to you in your dreams) is usually an exercise in futility. The entire point of this blog is help you recognize and overcome these limiting, self-defeating beliefs about creativity so you can actually make stuff that people buy – and get rich and famous.
I can be pretty critical and dismissive – but there’s a pattern to my negativity: authors who talk a great deal about themselves, their successes, and their lives, while offering very little in the way of pragmatic advice to help me succeed in a creative career, do not earn my trust or respect: instead I find them vain and annoying. I didn’t buy an autobiography, and if they wrote a book on creativity, it should be about creativity (which would mean research, rather than personal reflection).
The potatoes (a light introduction to creativity)
In the last few years (2009 to 2013) innovation and creativity have become buzzwords, so a whole bunch of people are publishing books about them – which is probably smart, but like articles written to get more traffic, full of promise but low on delivery. Here are a bunch of them with quick summaries.
Unstuck, Noah Scalin
Noah Scalin began making a skull a day, out of all sorts of random things, and all together they are pretty amazing.
The project taught him how to see things differently and “Discover” skulls everywhere; how to develop his skills by setting an immediate goal (one skull everyday); the power of social accountability to overcome procrastination (by posting his skulls online). The value of Noah’s work is his readily repeatable creative process.
I should add however, that A) doing the one thing a day/365 things is not a new idea and B) skulls and mustaches are the trendiest things imaginable right now. Do anything with skulls and you can’t fail. His skulls are creative, absolutely. But people like them, because skulls are cool – not because the art is valuable or particularly expressive in itself.
Noah’s book Unstuck is mostly a lot of quick “change your perspective” activities to spice things up and encourage creativity, mixed with more advice from other creative people. Altogether, it’s too random to help most people focus (it offers hundreds of potential tips rather than 1 excellent one that works). Noah’s 7 big lessons, however, are pretty great:
- let go of preciousness
- freedom comes from limitations
- get out of your environment
- get out of your comfort zone
- get things by giving them away
- inspiration is everywhere
I would add a huge #8: make stuff that is already wildly popular like skulls – find a trend and deliver. Without this, I don’t believe Noah – or the majority of writers or artists – would have been successful (Picasso jumped on every trend he could, as did most of our favorite famous artists. See what’s popular, join the vanguard, and try to stay one step ahead).
Creative Thinkering, Michael Michalko
Thinkering is about conceptual blending. All new ideas come from unusual combinations of things held together in the same space to generate ideas. The book is filled with thought experiments, illusions and puzzles.
The most important idea though, came at the end: We must have intention. We must have a problem, a goal, a challenge. Then our brain will automatically start looking for solutions, and combining things together in novel ways.
Creativity isn’t about being a blank canvas waiting for the muse to fill you with inspiration – it’s about being a tinkerer, trying to change and improve something, noticing a problem that could be fixed or improved, and seeking solutions.
Creativity Cure, Mr. and Mrs. Barron
This book isn’t meant for professional creatives so much as for normal people who need more creativity.
“Creativity is important for happiness. Creativity is part of you, whether you are an artist, a bus driver, a stay-at-home mom, or a professional. No matter who you are, some degree of creativity is necessary for wellness and contentment. The goal of this book is to help you uncover your creative potential and use it for greater fulfillment, so that you can be happier. Creativity can make everyday life interesting, lead to great accomplishments, or both. everyone is capable of happiness and creativity.”
In other words, Creativity is part of your “normal self” – and you can heal anxiety, depression and other mental disorders by increasing creativity. The authors offer a 5 step plan:
- mind rest
- your own two hands
- mind shift
I don’t disagree that becoming self-aware, getting some exercise, resting your mind through meditation or hiking, doing some crafty projects and shifting your perception can help you achieve mental balance. (Although, as someone who has relied on herbs and drugs to balance my erratic brain fluctuations, I’m not confident that happiness is this simple.)
Kickass Creativity, Mary Beth Maziarz
This book is exciting and written with lots of zest. In brief, it’s about opening the flow of energy from the Great Source, or “Big Creative”.
(A concept that I’m highly skeptical of, as we’ll see later).
Here’s a sample:
“Every day you have the potential to make contributions to the universe that no one else can possibly provide. You’ve got something special to offer. You’re gifted even. Creators like you share a gift of trust – in themselves and a higher source. You’re one of the brave ones, the bold ones, the ones fearless enough to make huge changes and impacts on the world. You find the time that seeems to elude everyone else, you believe in your visions, and you couragelously stand beside your works and take the heat or applause, respectively. Let’s just say it how it is: you’ve got it goin’ on.”
That’s pretty inspiring stuff. The author throws in some practical advice as well:
Challenging but attainable goals, go with flow, gratitude journal, knowing what to do next, have fun.
I really like a mantra she introduces: “Everything will be OK.”
I’m thinking of getting that tattooed, or another version which goes, “Everything is working out perfectly.”
That said, the book’s enthusiasm can be off-putting. I’m past the point where I need inspiration or permission to be creative; I’m looking for practical, applicable strategies.
Imagination First, Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon
Imagination First is a nice call-to-action, followed by 29 and a half practices or short episodes telling anecdotes about successful creatives that embody a maxim.
We suffer as a society, the book claims, from a failure of imagination. Every problem in the world is really a symptom of this problem. But imagination can be cultivated and developed.
[Tweet “Imagination is the ability to conceive of what is not. Creativity is the ability to produce it (application).”]
Innovation (novel/new creativity) advances the form.
So the central claim of the book is that there is no such thing as instant innovation; imagination – thinking of what isn’t – comes first. Then we use creativity to make it happen.
I think this is a reasonable claim, and I’m definitely in favor of a definition for creativity that involves practical application (rather than emotional/mystical “inspiration” that comes from anywhere and leads us nowhere).
I’m less partial however to a book that throws in a bunch of different anecdotes or stories: “collections” rather than organized content or narrative. I don’t have the patience for them. I want to know what the author thinks, not what all the authors’ friends and colleagues think, especially if they are incompatible.
Here are some of the useful tips I got from the book:
- collect ‘bits’ and sift
- be inspired, appreciative (“in awe”) and humble
- prepare to go it alone
- be OK with being foolish
- don’t blink (postpone automatic judgments – as opposed to the famous Blink by Malcolm Gladwell)
Epiphany, Elise Ballard
Although I love this cover design, I was disappointed in the book, for the reasons I listed above about not liking collections. This book is a long transcript of what other creative people think about inspiration, using anecdotal personal evidence from their greatest epiphany moments. As we would expect, these involved all sorts of different things and, since I didn’t really know the people involved, I wasn’t very interested in their moments of inspiration.
This style of book or blog post writing (asking a whole bunch of people a question and using their replies as content) rarely works well – unless it is heavily edited together into a compelling linear narrative. I’m also prejudiced against it, because it seems lazy to me.
Nevertheless I picked out a few tips from the different accounts:
- believe in self
- help others
- make friends
- be stubborn
- positive manifestation (we have the ability to change/create our experiences, health and everything else)
Snap, Katherine Ramsland
According to Snap, we can solve problems by a 3-tier method: scan, sift, solve.
But we are inspired by bliss and passion and “led” down the right path.
“When people begin to sense their bliss, they often work harder, watching for opportunities to deepen it. Thus they create better conditions for snaps to occur.”
So, as we’ve figured out from some of the other books, we need to know where we’re going and want to get there, and then we can use our focused intention to identify the things that will help us down our charted path. Once we’re in this highly targeted mindset, the universe seems to bend in our direction – as in this Nietzschean quote:
“One can hardly reject completely the idea that one is the mere incarnation, or mouthpiece, or medium of some almighty power. The notion of revelation describes the condition quite simply; by which I mean that something profoundly convulsive and disturbing suddenly becomes visible and audible with indescribable definiteness and exactness. One hears – one does not seek; one takes – one does not ask who gives: a thought flashes out like lightning, inevitably without hesitation.”…
A hybrid example is Coleridge writing Kubla Khan. He was reading a book about the subject while smoking opium, and woke up from a related dream and tried to jot it all down.
He failed to accomplish the poem as he wanted, because he got interrupted. His reasons for writing poetry at all were pragmatic: he was part of a community of poets, he wanted to get ahead, to get published and be recognized. Inspiration isn’t the Universe telling you what to create, but our brains processing experience, knowledge and desire together in a way that sometimes seems miraculous.
106 impossible things before breakfast, Robert Quine, PhD and John Nolan, MA
106 Impossible Things is about training your mind to get around “impossible tasks” by finding creative solutions. It’s good practice for thinking about/reinterpreting problems, but for me there was too much emphasis on avoiding or getting around the problem rather than actually solving it (hence, not that creative).
Example answers for “How to live forever” = die and go to heave and live forever, become a god, stop time.
The book offers easy, often silly answers, which won’t help you for example if you’re writing a sci-fi thriller about a man who lives forever. There are actually a ton of very practical alternatives that are already almost scientifically possible which would make living forever a real possibility. Once you have the problem, do a lot of research, find a way to make it potentially surmountable.
Instead, for the authors, “Impossible” things are not possible so we can imagine whatever we want and it doesn’t have to be practical. That doesn’t work for me at all. I want to know how to actually do the impossible by figuring out solutions.
InGenius, Tina Seelig
I found this book a little random and unfocused. There are lots of little examples and antidotes and stuff about her Stanford d.school course on creativity.
Practical tips are few but include:
* live in an area with a lot of potential connections like Silicon valley
*think about your creative space and how it influences you
*pressure and limitations/boundaries are helpful
*make it fun to do with games
*Genius is the ability to make the most mistakes in a given period of time
Spark: How Creativity Works
Another book with excellent focus and ambition, that is actually a collection of personal anecdotes.
From the introduction: “What do we look to art for, in the twenty-first century? What are these artists revealing to us, and why are we compelled to look and to listen? There are many answers to these questions; for me, the work that touches most deeply is always the work that connects with life. The artists with whom I fall in love are those who are willing to open themselves up to the anguish as well as to the pleasure of experience in order to create work that moves me to understand my own life in a new way.”
That’s a great intro to a book that focuses mainly on autobiographical anecdotes and the success stories of lots of different creative people.
As the radio host of Studio 360 – that’s also the kind of material he had to work with.
Is it helpful in my own creative process, either to create more, generate new ideas, overcome procrastination, or market my work? Not so much.
Think better, Tim Hunson
3rd think: 1st round of solution to problem is obvious, 2nd is better, 3rd are truly creative. Don’t go with first answer.
Six step process;
- what’s going on,
- what does success look like,
- what’s the question,
- resources. Getting things done. Organizations.
The Art of Innovation, Tom Kelly
This is a book on brainstorming. Most interesting insight:
“The people brainstorming are NOT the same people as the deciders.”
The creative flow=
1) knowing exactly where you’re going and what you need to do
2) having the skills and experience to do it well
3) enjoying the process
4) anticipating a clear reward
I absolutely agree. Just because it’s pragmatic, you are anticipating a reward, and you’re using skills and training (rather than, as Wordsworth put it, the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” doesn’t mean you aren’t being creative.
The Meat (seriously deep creative insights)
As I mentioned, I believe the above books were thrown together to profit from the trend; there are a handful of other books that I think are more influential, and as such more worthy of praise or criticism.
The Courage to Create, Rollo May (1975)
Rollo May was an existential psychologist. He basically sees art as a psychological release, which may be great for personal growth, but not at all good if you want to actually become a career artist.
What I appreciate most of all in The Courage to Create is Rollo’s recognition that creativity used to be seen as a war on gods – that in particular art was prohibited in Christianity and Judaism.
“This is why authentic creativity takes so much courage: an active battle with the gods is occurring.”
Artists are destroyers, rebels, and therefore dangerous:
“We cannot escape our anxiety over the fact that the artists together with creative persons of all sorts, are the possible destroyers of our nicely ordered systems.”
As far as ideologies go, I much prefer this to the more common belief that God or The Universe is inspiring you to create one specific thing and all you need to do is let go and let the muse create through you (which leads to a crazy, narcissistic egotism).
Art and Fear, David Bayles & Ted Orland (2001)
This book is written well enough that there are some lovely quotes (most of which I agree with).
“For the artist, that truth highlights a familiar and predictable corollary: artmaking can be a rather lonely, thankless affair. Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists spend virtually all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about. It just seems to come with the territory. But for some reason — self-defense, perhaps — artists find it tempting to romanticize this lack of response, often by (heroically) picturing themselves peering deeply into the underlying nature of things long before anyone else has eyes to follow.”
I love that passage – artists romanticize failure as a right of passage. As proof of their genius, rather than lack of talent.
“The hardest part of artmaking is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over — and that means, among other things, finding a host of practices that are just plain useful. A piece of art is the surface expression of a life lived within productive patterns.”
Yes: Art equals doing the work, over and over, consistently. Great works are done day to day in little steps.
After commenting that the success of most work actually depends on a network (exhibitors, display, formatting, editors…), the authors ask:
“But if the artist stands as an endangered species in the face of contemporary economics and marketing, we are faced with a perplexing question: why does the myth of the individual artist — the loner following his/her own heart — arise so predictably with each new generation?”
In other words, our idealistic notions of what it means to be an artist don’t match reality, which is probably why…
“Art has the dubious distinction of being one profession in which you routinely earn more by teaching it than by doing it.
The security of a monthly paycheck mixes poorly with the risk-taking of artistic inquiry. The discouraging truth is that MFA degrees were created largely to provide — and then satisfy — a prerequisite for obtaining teaching jobs.
And I’ll conclude with this quote, which you should print out and put on your wall (in fact, I’ll make a poster and add it to my ‘inspiration’ section just so you can.)
“To make art is to sing with the human voice. To do this you must first learn that the only voice you need is the voice you already have. Art work is ordinary work, but it takes courage to embrace that work, and wisdom to mediate the interplay of art & fear. Sometimes to see your work’s rightful place you have to walk to the edge of the precipice and search the deep chasms. You have to see that the universe is not formless and dark throughout, but awaits simply the revealing light of your own mind. Your art does not arrive miraculously from the darkness, but is made uneventfully in the light.”
Trust the Process, Shaun McNiff (1998)
Shaun’s a decent writer, but I couldn’t find any examples of his painting (found some: seems to be colorful expressionist stuff.) Would be really hard to sell that stuff in today’s market, maybe that’s why he turned to writing. Like all artists who don’t know what they’re doing and don’t know if it’s any good, Rollo deals constantly with self-doubt: so he believes that doubt is a natural part of the creative process:
“I cannot augur the creative spirit’s labyrinthine ways. As a creator, I know that the process doesn’t work that way. It is more unpredictable, complex, perverse, subtle, and intimately associated with the idiosyncratic landscapes of the personal imagination. Creation thrives on inspiration and affirmation rather than direction. When approached through explanation, the creative spirits fly away beyond our grasp.”
“Experience with the creative process reveals that results “happen” through an orchestration of dynamic forces moving in a given situation. For example, when I begin a painting, I try to empty myself of preconceptions, and I move in a way that corresponds to the feelings of the moment. The images of the painting emanate from the motions and energies of the specific time and place. I can never know in advance what will appear, because I discover what is going on inside me through the process of painting. Like a beginner, I feel surprise and wonder as the picture takes shape.”
“I believe that creativity is an intelligence that is broader than the experience of an individual person acting alone. It is an energy that exists within an environment, and as an artist I strive to collaborate with it.”
This is exactly the kind of fulfilling, uplifting, New Age, West Coast Voodoo that I think makes it very difficult for artists and authors to be successful – probably because, when you buy into it like Shaun does, creativity by definition is unteachable:
“I strive to give a concrete sense of “how to do it” without telling the reader what to do because the depths and mysteries of creation elude containment of any kind. The process of creation can only be described in subtle ways through glimpses of its movements, which are always a step ahead of the reflecting mind. My descriptions of the creative process draw from my personal experiences as a painter and my twenty-eight years of working as a creative arts therapist where I have focused on helping people who desire to become more involved with the creative spirit.”
“People beginning to commit themselves to creativity have to realize that important results are not always immediate. Just as the meditator practices staying with the object of meditation no matter what thoughts, sensations, or other distractions arise, the artist learns how to stay connected to the image being constructed and the process of creation, assimilating whatever occurs into the creative act.”
Creativity here is entirely worthless, because it’s not something you control. You can’t use it to problem solve, it isn’t a skill you can develop or get better at, and it can’t be taught. What he’s actually advocating is “do the work” – keep doing stuff and doing more stuff until you find the “thing” that other people like and you become successful – hopefully you’ll increase your technical skill, but since technical skill is not the focus, and rather he seems against it, preferring to focus on movements, then you’re probably sinking thousands of hours in without making anything other people want and without getting any better at it!
That’s not to say he knows nothing: “Hours, days, weeks, and sometimes months and years of frustrating work may be generating a realignment of elements, which gather together at a decisive moment, or in a fertile period, to generate a succession of new creations. Creativity is fed by the difficult course of events as well as by the instants of epiphany that we commonly associate with successful expression.”
Creativity is about doing the work! But oh, how much easier it is to be successful when you make work that people are desperate to share, like and buy!
Shaun spent a lot of time teaching teachers how to teach creativity, a frustrating process since he refused to give them any actual tools, activities, or tips:
“There is an expectation that something concrete will be delivered by the teacher to the learner. In training teachers from every conceivable discipline to engage all of the arts and integrate them into their different work situations, I have observed that they generally come with the following assumptions: “Tell me exactly how to do it and how I can use this in my classroom.” They are oriented toward the individual technique, not the process that runs through every method and continuously generates imaginative ways of doing things. Within the creative process, variations and unusual perspectives are encouraged. I have never been able to teach creativity in step-by-step exercises with common themes. That approach feels like an exercise class, although it no doubt helps many people by giving clear and concrete procedures.”
He expresses envy for other artists who do use a formula (who know what they’re doing): “But I often envy artists like Josef Albers and Jackson Pollock who work with consistent formulas. There is always something there for them. They don’t have to create something from nothing each time.”
“Doubt is natural and healthy. It keeps us humble, but it needs to be partnered with strong affirming voices. After periods of prolonged self-doubt, I can be catapulted into action by support from others. But on the whole my creative process has involved an ongoing interplay between doubt and confidence. Don’t underestimate frustration and discontent. They are eternal wellsprings for artistic expression. After sustained periods of being stuck, your impatience with the situation might unloose a new phase of creation.”
“These moments of ease are preceded by unavoidable periods of Sisyphean labor during which I confront an all-too-familiar sense of despair and worthlessness, feelings that on better days I see as “part of the process.” Creativity cannot flourish and reach its deepest potential without the participation of its demons as well as its angels.”
Yes – for those artists who never know whether anybody will like their work, and are often facing the extreme emotional challenge of making stuff that people don’t like. That said, of course there are many links between creativity, art and bi-polar or depressive disorders. People who play alone by themselves making stuff up probably aren’t the most socially charming, and art can be a salve. When I was a (starving) artist, I was very desperate and emotional and moody.
“When we play alone with art materials, we are enshrouded in an intimate and quiet relationship with the imagination, which acts as a silent partner. I find that my play with art materials can be likened to creative movement and dance. As I lose myself in the process, I become a medium for creative gestures.”
The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp (2006)
The author begins with a bold claim (which is the total opposite of “Trust the Process”):
“But there’s a process that generates creativity— and you can learn it. And you can make it habitual.”
That’s great! But what is it?
“It’s vital to establish some rituals— automatic but decisive patterns of behavior— at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.
It’s no different from a young person sitting with a drawing pad in a museum copying a great artist. Skill gets imprinted through the action.. If there’s a lesson here it’s: get busy copying. That’s not a popular notion today , not when we are all instructed to find our own way, admonished to be original and find our own voice at all costs! But it’s sound advice. Traveling the paths of greatness, even in someone else’s footprints, is a vital means to acquiring skill.”
“Scratching can look like borrowing or appropriating, but it’s an essential part of creativity. It’s primal, and very private. It’s a way of saying to the gods, “Oh, don’t mind me, I’ll just wander around in these back hallways…” and then grabbing that piece of fire and running like hell.” Twyla is encouraging copying or stealing ideas. When I studied fine art in Italy, students spent the first 3 years just copying – copying a drawing perfectly, line by line, getting all the shadowing picture-perfect. After the first year we’d copy a painting, in grayscale only. To build up skill and technique, copy the masters and those you admire.
I’m a big fan of and believer in technical skill – but it’s very possible these days to be successful without it (has been since modernism, when art stopped being about skill and started being about raw emotion).
And again, I like Twyla’s view of creativity as defiance:
“Creativity is an act of defiance. You’re challenging the status quo. You’re questioning accepted truths and principles. You’re asking three universal questions that mock conventional wisdom:
“Why do I have to obey the rules?”
“Why can’t I be different?”
“Why can’t I do it my way?”
“These are the impulses that guide all creative people whether they admit it or not. Every act of creation is also an act of destruction or abandonment. Something has to be cast aside to make way for the new.”
Another brilliant bit of insight is this:
A rut can be the consequence of a bad idea.You shouldn’t have started the project in the first place.
I could write a whole article, or book about that… basically, if you get stuck or have ‘writer’s block’ there’s probably a flaw in what you’re doing. It’s not that you’re lazy. You don’t need more motivation. Just figure out why what you’re trying to do won’t work. Cut it out, fix it, make it better, reinvent, start over.
Twyla also believes in “doing the work”:
“The one thing that creative souls around the world have in common is that they all have to practice to maintain their skills. Art is a vast democracy of habit.”
But she makes a rather surprising statement here:
“Of course, there’s an ur-skill that I don’t even feel obliged to list. That, dear reader, is discipline. Everyone needs it. No explanation required.”
Holy crap, an “Ur-Skill!” As in, the most important and most crucial thing about creativity in the world – the foundation of everything – and she doesn’t feel obliged to mention or explain it? That’s a little shocking. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Ideas are cheap. Discipline, dear reader, is everything.
Steal like an Artist, Austin Kleon (2012)
Austin Kleon’s little black book is a fun, light read with some great insights, like:
“If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.”
“The worst thing a day job does is take time away from you, but it makes up for that by giving you a daily routine in which you can schedule a regular time for your creative pursuits. Establishing and keeping a routine can be even more important than having a lot of time. Inertia is the death of creativity. You have to stay in the groove.”
“You’re ready. Start making stuff. You might be scared to start. That’s natural. There’s this very real thing that runs rampant in educated people. It’s called “impostor syndrome.” The clinical definition is a “psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments.” It means that you feel like a phony, like you’re just winging it, that you really don’t have any idea what you’re doing. Guess what: None of us do. Ask anybody doing truly creative work, and they’ll tell you the truth: They don’t know where the good stuff comes from. They just show up to do their thing. Every day.”
As Salvador Dalí said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
Julie Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (1992)
This was a life-changing book for me, but I don’t have a copy handy. It was basically my bible for years: so I focused on art, and writing, and doing whatever I wanted, and trying to get famous… and it was such hard work, and I was going about things all wrong.
The Artist’s Way (if I remember correctly) is a lot of “The Secret” new age philosophies like manifesting – believe it, see it, wish it, you can achieve anything, la la la. Not that that stuff is untrue. Usually, hopefully, if you know exactly where you’re going, then you will discover the path to get there, and you will being learning the skills you need. You need to have a destination first. So it is really important to know what you want to achieve.
But that’s not the same as just doing your thing, making what you want, and expecting the world to find you. You need to tell the world why you matter; you need to invent the story of you – that’s where the value is. And, your shit needs to be good, or people won’t like it.
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield 2002
I wrote an other post on The War of Art recently, you can read it here.
Mostly I challenge the author’s central claim that following your passion will lead to creative brilliance, and that anybody who focuses on making money or thinking about whether people will like the work are sell-outs.
However I was talking with a buddy today who mentioned the book again, and the main lesson he got out of reading it multiple times was that you just have to sit down and do the work. In the other words, creativity is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. This seems to be the central lesson most creatives got from the book as well, and so I’ve come to re-appreciate its value. For many would-be artists and writers, the main problem they are facing is to put in the time and do the work, and overcome all the frustration and procrastination. The War of Art is a good starter: it tells you that it’s not supposed to be easy. That’s good advice.
But I’m more worried about the 2nd stage – after they’ve done the work and are now looking around and thinking about publishing or exhibiting or selling for the first time, and they realize it’s too late, because they should’ve thought of those things before they sunk years into their product!
“We accept remuneration for our labor. We’re not here for fun. We work for money,” says Steven.
But also, “The hack writes hierarchically. He writes what he imagines will play well in the eyes of others. He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write? What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot, what can I make a deal for?”
The vicious and egomaniacal presumption is that, when you follow your heart and do what you love and listen to your inner muse, people will throw money at you, and you will accept it as your due reward for being an artistic genius.
When the truth is, much of what you produce this way, nobody will be interested in, and you’ll have to promote the crap out of it, and it still won’t sell. You’ll end up begging people just to take a look for free. In short, he’s got it all wrong – it’s idealistic, but unpractical. It’s also heavily religious (and like I mentioned earlier, extravagantly egoistic)
“Remember, as artists we don’t know diddly. We’re winging it every day. For us to try to second-guess our Muse the way a hack second-guesses his audience is condescension to heaven. It’s blasphemy and sacrilege.”
“Do the work and give it to Him. Do it as an offering to God. Give the act to me. Purged of hope and ego, Fix your attention on the soul. Act and do for me. The work comes from heaven anyway. Why not give it back?”
Sure – that’s pure and nice and good – if you don’t ALSO blast the crap out of the work all over the internet to try and make it sell. If you don’t want money, if you want to create for God (and not people), that’s your choice. And it’s a hell of a lot easier and puts less pressure on you or your art (it doesn’t have to be good and no one has to like it).
But what about supporting yourself and others? What about improving the lives of those around you? How selfish is it to commune with God all day in private reverie instead of trying to make the world a better place? All artists and writers I know are trying to do both: make art for themselves, but then try to get people to appreciate it and buy it.
Imagine, Jonah Lehrer (2012)
I’m loving this book. It’s the first to really do actual research, and talk about stuff I can learn from and use.
If you just read one of these books, read this one.
Here are some long passages.
Imagine is about “our most important mental talent: the ability to imagine what has never existed.”
“The sheer secrecy of creativity — the difficulty in understanding how it happens, even when it happens to us — means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, until the Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means “breathed upon.”) Because people couldn’t understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced.”
“Before we can find the answer — before we probably even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach. When people think about creative breakthroughs, they tend to imagine them as incandescent flashes, like a light bulb going on inside the brain. These tales of insight all share a few essential features that scientists use to define the “insight experience.” The first stage is the impasse: Before there can be a breakthrough, there has to be a block… It is the struggle that forces us to try something new.”
Creativity= “The essential element is a steady rhythm of alpha waves emanating from the right hemisphere. While the precise function of alpha waves remains mysterious, they’re closely associated with relaxing activities, such as taking a warm shower.”
“Because positive moods allow us to relax, we focus less on the troubling world and more on these remote associations. Another ideal moment for insights, according to Beeman and John Kounios, is the early morning, shortly after waking up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas. The right hemisphere is also unusually active. “The problem with the morning, though,” Kounios says, “is that we’re always so rushed. We’ve got to get the kids ready for school, so we leap out of bed, chug the coffee and never give ourselves a chance to think.” If you’re stuck on a difficult problem, Kounios recommends setting the alarm clock a few minutes early so that you have time to lie in bed. We do some of our best thinking when we’re half asleep.”
The visual cortex was going quiet so that the brain could better focus on its own obscure associations. “The cortex does this for the same reason we close or cover our eyes when we’re trying to think,” Beeman says. When the outside world becomes distracting, the brain automatically blocks it out.
“This state of hyperpriming helps explain why can-nabis has so often been used as a creative fuel: it seems to make the brain better at detecting the remote associations that define the insight process. In every single domain, from drama to engineering, the students with ADHD had achieved more. Their attention deficit turned out to be a creative blessing. The unexpected benefits of not being able to focus reveal something important about creativity. Although we live in an age that worships attention — when we need to work, we force ourselves to concentrate — this approach can inhibit the imagination.”
“According to the scientists, the inability to focus helps ensure a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness. Because these people had difficulty filtering out the world, they ended up letting more in. Instead of approaching the problem from a predictable perspective, they considered all sorts of far-fetched analogies, some of which proved useful.”
“Furthermore, even if a person is lucky enough to experience a useful epiphany, that new idea is rarely the end of the creative process. The sobering reality is that the grandest revelations often still need work. The new idea — that thirty-millisecond burst of gamma waves — has to be refined, the rough drafts of the right hemisphere transformed into a finished piece of work. Such labor is rarely fun, but it’s essential. A good poem is never easy. It must be pulled out of us, like a splinter. (Which is why amphetamines/speed is necessary).”
“While attention is normally impatient and twitchy, flitting about from sensation to sensation, the drug-induced flood of dopamine makes even the most tedious details too interesting to ignore… But amphetamines do more than focus the attention. They also make it easier to connect ideas, to translate concentration into better poetry.”
“The power of working memory also explains why amphetamines are abused by poets and mathematicians seeking a creative edge. When we’re intensely focused on something, more information is sent to the prefrontal cortex; the stage of consciousness gets even more crowded. (If working memory is normally like a string quartet, these drugs turn it into a loud orchestra.) This excess of ideas allows the neurons to form connections that have never existed before, wiring themselves into novel networks.”
“For Glaser, the quote summarizes his creative philosophy. “There’s no such thing as a creative type,” he says. “As if creative people can just show up and make stuff up. As if it were that easy. I think people need to be reminded that creativity is a verb, a very time-consuming verb. It’s about taking an idea in your head, and transforming that idea into something real. And that’s always going to be a long and difficult process. If you’re doing it right, it’s going to feel like work.”
“Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration . . . shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre, or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects . . . All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.”
“Art and depression: The enhancement of these mental skills during states of sadness might also explain the striking correlation between creativity and depressive disorders. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British novelists and poets done by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. According to her data, famous writers were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.”
“This doesn’t take away, of course, from the agony of the mental illness, and it doesn’t mean that people can create only when they’re horribly sad or manic. But it does begin to explain the significant correlations that have been repeatedly observed between depressive syndromes and artistic achievement.”
(NOTE: Norman Mailer’s long essay “The White Negro”, another landmark work of 1957, documented a white culture drawn increasingly to, and shaped increasingly by, African-American art. Bennies were not, as Mailer saw things, compatible with that shift. Intellectual culture was moving from the way of the (very white) “psychopath” to the (would-be black) “hipster.” The signature drug of the psychopath was Benzedrine, which Mailer himself had used throughout the Forties and much of the Fifties. But, he later commented, as he was drawn to the world of Cool, to the black world, to the hipster world, he shifted to the drug appropriate to that style, that speed of life: marijuana. Source)
“For Glaser, the quote summarizes his creative philosophy. “There’s no such thing as a creative type,” he says. “As if creative people can just show up and make stuff up. As if it were that easy. I think people need to be reminded that creativity is a verb, a very time-consuming verb. It’s about taking an idea in your head, and transforming that idea into something real. And that’s always going to be a long and difficult process. If you’re doing it right, it’s going to feel like work.”
When is it time to daydream and take warm showers, and when is it better to drink another cup of coffee?
“This ability to calculate progress is an important part of the creative process. When you don’t feel that you’re getting closer to the answer — you’ve hit the wall, so to speak — you probably need an insight. In these instances, you should rely on the right hemisphere, which excels at revealing those remote associations. Continuing to focus on the problem will be a waste of mental resources, a squandering of the prefrontal cortex. You will stare at your computer screen and repeat your failures. Instead, find a way to relax and increase the alpha waves. The most productive thing to do is forget about work.”
“However, when those feelings of knowing tell you that you’re getting closer — when you feel the poetic meter slowly improve, or sense that the graphic design is being unconcealed — then you need to keep on struggling. Continue to pay attention until it hurts; fill your working memory with problems. Before long, that feeling of knowing will become actual knowledge.”
“There is nothing romantic about this kind of creativity, which consists mostly of sweat, sadness, and failure. It’s the red pen on the page and the discarded sketch, the trashed prototype and the failed first draft. backs of taxis and popping pills until the poem is finished. Nevertheless, such a merciless process is sometimes the only way forward. And so we keep on thinking, because the next thought might be the answer.”
Being in the zone= half madness, relaxing (after you’ve learned to perfection… study your sources, develop the technique, be obsessive)… then you can relax and be in the zone and create amazing stuff.
Drawing Some Conclusions about Creativity
So now we’ve heard some voices (all contemporary voices… I could’ve found more enlightening passages from older literature).
What I’ve learned: writing books about innovation and creativity in the past couple years has been big business; because everybody is trying to make lots of money by having that one big idea – and big ideas are worth cash.
But there is a critical distinction most books don’t address at all: some people are using creativity for their own, personal benefit, for “Creativity” itself – which may bring intrinsic psychological or health benefits but is unlikely to lead to career or business success. Then there are those people who are using “productive thinking” – i.e. focused creativity that uses a fixed target, a battle plan, a well defined problem to generate epiphany moments.
The problem, for most artists and authors, is that they are trapped somewhere in the middle of these two beliefs – (but often further down the “muse” road because of books like War of Art, when they need to be further down the other side).
I feel you may still have resistance to this idea that creativity can be functional, so let me introduce you to even more books!
Even standard scientific definitions of creativity include practical qualifiers, for example, here’s the definition from Shelley Carson’s Your Creative Brain (2010)
“Before we go further, let’s define exactly what we mean by that nebulous term creativity. Though philosophers and writers have come up with a number of definitions for creative, there are two elements to the definition that virtually all of us who study creativity agree need to be present in the creative idea or product. First, the creative idea or product needs to be novel or original, and second, it has to be useful or adaptive to at least a segment of the population. Note, for example, that the scribblings of a toddler who has just learned to hold a crayon are novel . . . but, as a product, they are not considered useful or adaptive.”
I don’t mean to completely discard the Romantic myth of the eternal muse. There is some evidence that some people are truly ‘receiving’ creative material or content, seemingly out of nothing.
Jay Greenberg, for example, a child prodigy who has recently been praised as the greatest musical genius since Mozart by his Julliard professors, says “he doesn’t know where the music comes from, but it comes fully written—playing like an orchestra in his head.” He hears all the parts of a composition simultaneously. By the age of 12, he had already written five symphonies that were highly regarded by professional composers and conductors—symphonies composed via the spontaneous pathway. (Carson, Your Creative Brain)
“Surely, Horatio, There are more things in heaven and earth…” and all that. Some of our best ideas pop up when we least expect them. But I’m going to maintain the qualifiers useful and adaptive.
Jay’s symphonies were all ‘highly regarded by professional composers and conductors’. This means they were written with skill, within a musical tradition which had its own values and rules. What separates Jay from some “really creative” 12 year old who just bangs on the keys all day making lots of noise. Which is “Inspired”? Which is the “genius.” Modern definitions of creativity have steered away from – even become reactive against, the qualifiers “useful and adaptive”. We want to think that anything we make, regardless of its usefulness, regardless if other people like it, regardless if we have any skill or talent, is just as creative. And we expect people to buy it from us.
Lynne C. Levesque in Breakthrough Creativity (2001) writes:
“I define creativity as the ability to consistently produce different and valuable results.”
For Ken Robinson, creativity refers to “original ideas that have value”. Creativity is as important as literacy and we should treat it with same status: in a 2006 TED talk Ted says schools kill creativity. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” By the time they’re adults, they’ve lost this. We are educating people out of their creativity. Education system invented in 19th century as a response to industrialization. Focus on the skills you might need at work.
The imminently quotable Seth Godin agrees with the Romantic ideals of art:
“You cannot create a piece of art merely for money. Doing it as part of commerce so denudes art of wonder that it ceases to be art.” ― Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?
But also recommends you use your art to safeguard your career position:
Seth Godin calls the process of doing your art ‘the work.’ And says “It’s possible to have a job and do the work, too. In fact, that’s how you become a linchpin.” The job is not the work.
― Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?
In other words, art shouldn’t be made for money, but using your creative abilities in your job, creating art while in your functional role in society, makes you indispensable, a ‘Linchpin’.
Likewise, Hugh Macleod (Ignore Everybody) seems to buy into the general muse theory: “Go ahead and make something. Make something really special. Make something amazing that will really blow the mind of anybody who sees it. If you try to make something just to fit your uninformed view of some hypothetical market, you will fail. If you make something special and powerful and honest and true, you will succeed.”
But in the very next section, he says, “Keep your day job” and outlines his Sex and Cash theory: All creative people, he says, will have two kinds of jobs. The cool, ‘sexy’, soul inspiring job, done sometimes for free and low pay, and the ‘cash’ jobs that pay the bills. A Young author or artist “dreams of one day not having her life divided so harshly. Over time the “harshly” bit might go away, but not the “divided.”
“The tense duality will always play center stage. It will never be transcended. And nobody is immune. Not the struggling waiter, or the movie star. As soon as you accept this, I mean really accept this, for some reason your career starts moving ahead faster. I don’t know why this happens. It’s the people who refuse to cleave their life this way – who just want to start Day One by quitting their current crappy day job and moving straight on over to bestselling author – well, they never make it.”
He continues, “Even after my cartooning got successful, I still took on corporate marketing and advertising gigs, just to stay attached to the real world. Keeping one foot in the “Real world” makes everything far more manageable for me. The fact that I have another income means I don’t feel pressured to do something market-friendly. Instead, I get to to do whatever the hell I want.” I get to do it for my own satisfaction.” And I think that makes the work more powerful in the long run. It also makes it easier to carry on with it in a calm fashion, day-in-day-out, and not go crazy in insane creative bursts brought on by money worries.” (Hugh Macleod)
These inconsistencies, I feel, expose our society’s conflicting ideologies. Even those who have made it big hold onto the dream of Pure Art, which is valuable for itself regardless of financial compensation or social recognition; but they have also learned to do what it takes in business, to make themselves useful to society by providing things that people like and want. They may be harboring some negative emotions about their failure to succeed on pure art alone. They may feel on some level that they’ve sold out, and so you see this struggle and inconsistency come out in their writing.
I’m not suggesting you choose one or the other. I’m suggesting you do both; use your creativity to make “art” with a capital A sometimes, but also develop the in-demand skills to become an indispensable and much needed asset to other people. Make enough money to quit your day job, which has the happy result that everything you do, in either field, builds your reknown.
But here’s the rub: I think most artists are authors are already making products they are planning to sell. They aren’t doing Art for Art’s sake. If you keep your day job or use your creativity to make a lot of money, only then can you actually do art and not need to make any money from it; to make real art just for the hell of it, for fun, and not think about what it’s worth or who will buy it.
But I don’t believe that’s how many authors and artists are creating these days. I think they are creating with the hopes of striking it big, getting rich and famous, because people will love their stuff. They are creating something they want other people to like, but they refuse to first think about what people like and what customers may want to buy. This is disingenuous, egoistic, and
FOLLOW your passion is bad advice. I think it sounds like great advice until you do it for along time. You do everything you’re passionate about. You learn all you want to learn, go everywhere you want to go… eventually, you’re still the same person, and you have to figure out, what’s next? What do you DO with your life? Continously doing things you enjoy starts getting boring, and seeming selfish. Cal Newport echoes some of these sentiments in So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.
Cal hopes his book will “free you from simplistic catchphrases like “follow your passion” and “Do what you love” – the type of catchphrases that have helped spawn the career confusion that affects so many today, and instead, provide you with a realistic path toward a meaningful and engaging working life.”
What I’m proposing – Creativindie – isn’t revolutionary, but it is controversial and against the current contemporary wishful thinking type of Creativity that we have been taught to embrace. And I’m not even saying you can’t call yourself creative and make whatever you want and do whatever you want in an isolated bubble all the time. It’s fine. That’s a lifestyle choice. Maybe you really will be visited by the Muse. I merely want you to accept that you have decided to focus on the art of creation, without thinking of the end result (who will enjoy and appreciate it, besides yourself?) And that sitting in a room playing with yourself for years may be about the most selfish thing you can do.
Creative people don’t know shit about creativity – or, more accurately, they know a lot about themselves and nothing about YOU.
But we can structure their advice into two basic definitions:
1) Creativity is a strange and mystical process that can’t be controlled or planned (and it has nothing, at all, to do with success, which is something nobody likes to talk about because money is icky and suspect and art shouldn’t be about making money).
2) Creativity is the process of learning skills to make new things that are awesome so that people will buy them from you; it can be greatly aided by focus, putting in the time, having a goal or map, setting perimeters, copying successful people with skills, and staying one step ahead of popular trends.
It’s not for me to say which definition is true, but the fact is, the second is the belief you need to adopt if you want to actually be successful and make money. The first is a recipe for success if you have the right contacts, the ability to BS like crazy, and don’t really need the money anyway.
UPDATES: some more recent books.
- Pam Slim, Body of Work
- Jeff Goins, Real Artists Don’t Starve
- Ryan Holiday, Perennial Seller
- How I become a bestselling novelist
- Steven Pressfield Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit
- Seth Godin, This is Marketing
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.